Is New York hosting a historic event? Are the imposing United Nations headquarters witnessing intensive discussions of an international treaty that may prove a turning point in the human quest for nuclear disarmament? Where exactly is the 26-day Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon), to end on May 28, headed?
Looking at it from a region that figures so largely in the RevCon, the answers appear far from optimistic. The anti-nuclear-weapon camp in South Asia does not expect a stronger treaty to emerge from the exercise. It does not expect such an outcome any more than the world campaigners for the same cause, some of whom had let their hopes on this count soar over the last one year.
This marks the period since the famous Prague speech of President Barack Obama, promising a nuke-free world. A call followed for the same goal from what would have once been seen as a group of confirmed nuclear hawks. The verbal advance toward disarmament, it now turns out, only concealed a victory for the votaries of nukes, especially in the US. This is good news for South Asia’s nuclear militarists, who have been at once the NPT’s bitter critics and, believe it or not, major beneficiaries.
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The region harbors two of the three NPT holdouts: India and Pakistan (the third being Israel, while North Korea, an erstwhile signatory, has walked out of the treaty). The two never-friendly neighbors have been one in opposing the “discriminatory” NPT dispensation for decades. The nuclear hawks of both countries, however, have found their most trustworthy, if also indirect, allies in the architects and upholders of the treaty, which gives something like a divine right for five nuclear-armed powers to preserve their arsenals while denying it to the rest of the world.
The NPT has placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the nuclear hawks in countries like India against national peace movements. This is a fact that the Western part of the world peace movement appeared unable to appreciate fully until very recently. Someone like Sweden’s former Disarmament Minister Alva Myrdal may have displayed the prescience even in the late sixties to tell the nuclear haves that “the non-aligned nations … strongly believe that disarmament measures should be a matter of mutual renunciation.” She warned that they wanted no treaty that “would leave the present five nuclear-weapon parties free to continue to build up their arsenals.” Myrdal, however, was an exception.
The rule was represented in the opinion that the treaty helped toward disarmament by halting proliferation at any rate. Nuclear hawks in India, for example, had no problem appealing to national pride and notions of national sovereignty while arguing their cause. They asked, Why should this country forgo a weapon that the treaty made a monopoly of the infamous five or the P5? They elicited at least the acquiescence of an extremely poor people in a program of astronomical outlays, even if not their explicit approval for it.
The argument has continued to be advanced. The International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese governments, has called upon the states of NPT-accorded special nuclear status to answer the argument with credible action. In its report presented on December 15, 2009, the commission said: “So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them.”
Added the commission: “It is neither defensible nor sustainable for some states to argue that nuclear weapons are an indispensable, legitimate and open-ended guarantor of their own and allies’ security, but that others have no right to acquire them to protect their own perceived security needs.”
Apologists for the NPT, of course, have continued to cite Article VI of the treaty, adopted under pressure, that the signatories would “pursue negotiations in good faith at an early date on effective measures regarding cessation of the nuclear arms race and disarmament.” The P5’s treatment of the provision as a mere token, despite its interpretation as a serious commitment by the International Court of Justice, has only made the treaty appear all the more toothless.
Nor has the treaty lived up to the original hope that it would help to create nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs). The hope was not really warranted by the noncommittal wording of the concerned provision. Article VII only states: “Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of states to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”
The dominant powers under the NPT dispensation have refused even to extend a “negative security assurance” to non-nuclear-weapon states and would-be nuclear-weapons free states to make NWFZs possible. It is this factor that is preventing a campaign for South Asia as an NWFZ from taking full shape.
India has also figured prominently in a major development seen by many as nearly an NPT killer. The treaty’s foundation was itself shaken, according to many non-nuclear-weapon signatories to the treaty, when the US-India nuclear deal was concluded three years ago. In 2008, the IAEA approved the Indian Safeguard Agreement, and India was granted a waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), paving the way for nuclear trade with other countries. The exemptions were extended despite the fact that India was a nonsignatory of the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As for Pakistan, it is supposed to be primarily connected with what has been advertised as the main issue on the agenda at the RevCon. On this, the position of the US, backed by its NATO allies is that they have “confidence in Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its nuclear weapons though vulnerabilities exist,” to quote Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess of the US Senate Intelligence Committee. The “vulnerabilities” – including suspected links of sections of the Pakistani Army with insurgents – are such that cannot be resolved over the crowded table at the UN headquarters.
Another issue, apparently more within the treaty’s ambit, has come up with reports of the readiness of China, one of the P5 and NPT architects, to give Pakistan something like a US-India deal. The reports followed indications of a negative response to Islamabad’s quest for a similar deal with the US. Washington has officially noted China’s admission that it is building two civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan. US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg has said that “we’re … looking at (the Beijing-Islamabad negotiations) very carefully” – and that “… it’s important to scrupulously honor … non-proliferation commitments.” Critics of the US policy on the NPT note that Washington recognizes India and Pakistan besides Israel as “de facto nuclear powers” as distinct from “outlier” states like Iran and North Korea. India has been singled out for special importance. Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley has recently said: “India will play an important role, both in the National Security Summit … as well as the NPT Review Conference … both in terms of reinforcing and strengthening the NPT but also demonstrating how it can both protect nuclear technology while also allowing the growth of civilian nuclear capacity.”
All this criticism is combined with growing cynicism about Obama administration’s disarmament agenda. Russ Wellen, an expert on the subject, in a recent paper, recalls the termination by US Congress of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. Instead of relying exclusively on long-term life extension for existing warheads, the program called for the design and production of new nuclear warheads, but without resuming underground testing. Opponents of new nukes welcomed the Congressional move.
This program has, however, been replaced by a Stockpile Management Program. This Congress-mandated program will help to modernize “the US nuclear stockpile along a spectrum of options ranging from … refurbishment to the manufacture of new weapons.”
Added to concern over Washington’s nuclear agenda are anxieties over the stance of its Western allies. The return of conservatives to power in the UK revives memories of the day former British Prime Minister of Britain Margaret Thatcher derided the idea of universal nuclear disarmament as “a pie in the sky.” Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ruled out abandonment of nuclear weapons, stating, “I cannot jeopardize the security and safety of my country.”
The context does not fill objective observers with optimism about the outcome of the RevCon. Pugwash President Jayantha Dhanapala, former UN under secretary general for disarmament affairs from the South Asian state of Sri Lanka, explained why. “An arbitrary distinction has been drawn between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ proliferators,” he said.
Dhanapala added: “A new dimension is the possible acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups, which, while being frighteningly real, is another form of proliferation that the NWS have seized upon to distract attention from their own nuclear weapons – which, of course, have no conceivable military value in combating terrorism. The fundamental issue is that nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous in anybody’s hands.”
This is why the peace movement in South Asia and elsewhere is increasingly moving toward the adoption of the demand for a nondiscriminatory alternative to the NPT. What the world needs is nothing less than a nuclear weapons convention on the model of the chemical and biological weapons conventions that outlaw possession of these mass-casualty devices.